The Case Against Education


Previously: Something Was Wrong, Book Review: The Elephant in the Brain

Previously (Compass Rose): The Order of the Soul

Epistemic Status: No, seriously. Also literally.

They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom

for trying to change the system from within

I’m coming now I’m coming to reward them

First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

— Leonard Cohen, First We Take Manhattan

This was originally going to be my review of Bryan Caplan’s excellent new book, The Case Against Education. I was going to go over lots of interesting points where our ways of thinking differ. Instead, the introduction got a little sidetracked, so that worthy post will have to wait a bit.

First, we have the case against education.

As in: I See No Education Here.


What is school?

Eliezer Yudkowsky knows, but is soft peddling (from Inadequate Equilibria):

To paraphrase a commenter on Slate Star Codex: suppose that there’s a magical tower that only people with IQs of at least 100 and some amount of conscientiousness can enter, and this magical tower slices four years off your lifespan. The natural next thing that happens is that employers start to prefer prospective employees who have proved they can enter the tower, and employers offer these employees higher salaries, or even make entering the tower a condition of being employed at all.5

Anyway: the natural next thing that happens is that employers start to demand that prospective employees show a certificate saying that they’ve been inside the tower. This makes everyone want to go to the tower, which enables somebody to set up a fence around the tower and charge hundreds of thousands of dollars to let people in.6

Rick (of Rick and Morty) knows:


Nassim Talib knows (quote is from Skin in the Game):

The curse of modernity is that we are increasingly populated by a class of people who are better at explaining than understanding, or better at explaining than doing. So learning isn’t quite what we teach inmates inside the high-security prisons called schools.

Talib considers this fact – that school is a prison – so obvious he tosses it out as an off-hand remark with no explanation. He’s right. If you’re looking at a classroom, you too know. Something Was Wrong. This isn’t a playground designed to teach useful knowledge and inspire creativity. It is a prison where we learn to guess the teacher’s password and destroy creativity.

Robin Hanson knows: School is to submit. Signal submission. Submit to a life of signaling, obeying, being conscientious and conformist.

This cancer has taken our childhoods entirely. Often the rest of our lives as well. It  replaces our hopes and dreams with hopes of survival via official approval and dreams of showing up naked to algebra class. Enough school so cripples your life, between losing time and being saddled with debt, that it severely damages your ability to have children. To get our children into slightly less dystopian prisons, we bid up adjacent housing and hire coaches and tutors to fill our kids’ every hour with the explicit aim of better test and admission results rather than knowledge. Then college shows up and takes everything we have left and more, with a 100% marginal tax rate.

School takes more than all of our money.

In exchange we learn little that we retain. Little of that is useful. Most of the useful stuff – writing, reading, basic math – we would have learned anyway.

In grade school I would often fake illness to get a day of solitary confinement in my room, where I could read books and listen to public radio. Also known as getting an education. I learned far more on those days.

In high school, I went to the hardest-to-get-into school in New York City. I had a great ‘zero’ period when I would do math competitions because I enjoyed them, and a great after school because I’d run off and play games. In between was torture. Literal clock watching. I spent history class correcting the teachers. I tried to take advanced placement classes, and they wouldn’t let me because my grades at boring classes weren’t high enough. So learned I could take the AP tests anyway, which I did.

I actually entitled my big English class project “get me out of here” and no one batted an eye. 

For college, I majored in mathematics (STEM!) at a well-respected institution. I work with numbers constantly. I have never, not once, used any of that math  for any purpose.

I was intentionally taught to write badly and read badly. I learned non-awful writing by writing online. “Appreciation” classes turned me off music, art and literature. If you compared what I got out of one statistics course (in which I mostly learned from studying a textbook) to what I learned from the rest of my college classes combinedand asked which has proven more valuable, I’m not sure which side wins.

I took one graduate math class, in analysis. The remember three things. One is that they asked us to note on our final exams if we were undergraduates, so they could pass us. The other is that the class consisted, entirely and literally, of a man with a thick, semi-understandable Russian accent copying his notes onto the board, while saying the thing he was copying onto the board.

The third thing is that it was the most valuable class I ever took, because it saved me from graduate school. Thanks, professor!


Is our children learning?

Bryan has the data. Ignore Bryan’s data for now. Read and actually pay attention to Scott Alexander’s recent two posts on the DC public school system.

Instead of asking Scott’s question – why are DC’s graduation rates so low? – ask the question what the hell are these things called ‘high schools’ and what are we doing to the children we put inside them?

I know what we’re not doing. Teaching them to read, write or do arithmetic. That’s clear.

Instead? Fraud. We pretend to teach, they pretend to learn. Or rather, we tried that, and they couldn’t even pretend to learn, so we resorted to massive fraud and plain old not even testing the kids at all. We pretend to teach, and we pretend they pretended to learn.

We can’t even do massive fraud and really low standards right. Massive quantities of students fail anyway, barred from earning a living. Nice system.

Pretending the kids pretended to learn doesn’t work. Why? School isn’t about learning. It’s a prison. The ‘test’ be in your appointed cell at the appointed time, every time. Because it’s a prison. We don’t care if the kids can read, write or add. We care if they get credit for time served.

Bizzolt writes:

DC Public Schools HS teacher here (although I’m not returning next year, as is the case with many of my colleagues). As noted, one of the biggest factors in the graduation rates is the unexcused absences–if you look at the results of our external audit and investigation here, you see that for many schools, a significant number of our seniors “Passed Despite Excessive Absences in Regular Instruction Courses Required for Graduation”–over 40% of 2017 graduates at my high school, for example.

So the attendance policy is being strictly enforced now, and you can see how from that alone, a ~30% drop in expected graduates is possible. Some more details about strictly enforcing the attendance policy though:

1: DCPS has what’s called the ’80 20′ rule: A student that is absent for at least 20% of their classes is considered absent for the whole day.
2: Most schools have 5 periods, so an absence in one class would be considered an absence for the whole day.
3: If you have 10 or more unexcused absences in a class, you automatically get an F for the term.
4: If you are over 15 minutes late for a class, that is considered an unexcused absence.
5: A majority of these absences are in first period.
6: A majority of students in my school and many others live in single parent households.
7: These students are typically responsible for making sure their younger siblings get to school, if they have any.
8: Elementary and middle schools in my neighborhood start at the exact same time as high school.
9: Their doors do not open until 5 to 10 minutes before the starting bell, presumably for safety reasons.
10: Refer to point 4.

There’s many other problems at DCPS to be sure, but this set of circumstances alone is causing the largest increase in failing grades and graduation ineligibility at my high school, and basically every other 90+% black school in the district. You could see how this accounts for quite a bit of the difference between white and black graduation rates as well. There’s a reason why across the board, DCPS schools were not strictly enforcing this policy in previous years.

Fifteen minutes late to unnaturally early class so you could take a sibling to their unnaturally early class? You missed the whole day. Do that ten times in a term? We ruin your life. For want of two and a half hours.

I have no idea how one can see this, and present a human capital model of school with a straight face.

The signaling model is optimistic. It thinks students signal to employers, rather than politicians and administrators signaling to and stealing from voters.


Bryan Caplan’s economist hat is permanently glued to his forehead. So he sees school not as a genocidal dystopian soul-crushing nightmare of universal incarceration, but merely a colossal waste of time and money. He looks at the economic costs and benefits,  compares signaling explanations to human capital ones, and calculates when and for whom school is worthwhile. Worthwhile for which individuals, for their private benefit? Worthwhile to what extent for society, as a public good?

Reading The Case Against Education is to watch Bryan think. Bryan goes argument by argument, consideration by consideration, to consider the true costs and benefits of formal education.

At each step, you see the questions he asks, the way he sets up the problems, examines data, considers hypothesis and reaches conclusions. He acts like someone trying to discover how things work, sorting through what he knows and considering what the world would look like if it worked in different ways. You get a book about education, but you also get an education, where it counts – the question of how to think.

Bryan lives the virtue of local validity. This is super important; when Eliezer Yudkowsky calls it the key to sanity and civilization, he’s not kidding.

Because we get to watch Bryan think, we get tons of places where he and I think very differently. Many of them are worth examining in detail. There’s a lot of data that’s difficult to interpret, and questions without clear answers. Often Bryan is extremely generous to education’s case, and shows even generous assumptions are insufficient. Other times, Bryan’s logic leads him to be overly harsh. I got the distinct sense that Bryan would have been very happy to have been proven wrong. We get a consideration of education, its pros and its cons, as Bryan sees them – an explorer, rather than an advocate.

Overall, what does Bryan find? Time and again, Bryan finds that the signaling model of education fits the facts, and the human capital argument does not fit the facts. His arguments are convincing.

Bryan concludes that if you take what you’ve read and experienced and shut up and multiply, no matter how generous you are to school’s cause, you will find that social returns to schooling are remarkably terrible.

That’s most of the human capital you get from school anyway: Reading, writing, basic math and shutting up. You get selfish returns to school by signaling conformity, conscientiousness and intelligence. To not follow the standard procedure for signaling conformity and conscientiousness is to signal their opposites, so we’re caught in an increasingly expensive signaling trap we can’t escape.

Bryan then bites quite the bullet:

Most critics of our education system complain we aren’t spending our money in the right way, or that preachers in teachers’ clothing are leading our nation’s children down dark paths. While I semi-sympathize, these critics miss what I see as our educational system’s supreme defect: there’s way too much education.

He means there’s way too much formal education. I don’t think Bryan thinks people spend too little time learning about the world or acquiring skills! He thinks they do so via other, far superior paths, where they remember what they learn and what they learn is valuable.

People don’t know things. People need skills. It’s a problem. School doesn’t solve the problem, it exacerbates it.

Bryan’s proposed remedy is the separation of school and state. At times he flirts with going farther, and taxing school, but recoils. We don’t really want to discourage school the way we discourage, say, income. Do we?

Meta/Life Note: I will be hunkering down at work for a bit. So posting, including the continuation of this point and my responding to comments, will likely continue to be slow for at least a few weeks. And please use texts or phone calls for things that need responses quicker than a day.